Of Crucibles and Creatures

February 6, 2015 - Short Story

Of Crucibles and Creatures – A Short Fantasy Story By Kelly D. Tolman
After all the warnings Pasav gave, I never thought he would take me down the staircase. “We must locate Kirien’s crucible. I have waited long for such an opportunity, and with the Horde delayed for the long winter, we will have time to recover it.
“What is the crucible?” I asked.
Pasav chuckled softly in the dim light. “I forgot, Kyven, that there is so much history you don’t know. Many years ago my comrade, Kirien, constructed the crucible to help us with our on-going battle with the Horde. The artifact was completed, but Kirien died before we could activate it. Those who still dwell in these halls were once Kirien’s servants or slaves. His experiments, if you will.”
We had already met a few of the inhabitants. Strange beasts, distorted combinations of animals. The keep itself was built into the mountain, with a small courtyard and well surrounding a small outer structure. The bulk of the keep was deep underground, hidden in darkness and evil now. Evil and danger so thick I could feel it clinging to my lungs as I breathed.
A small globe of yellow green light floated near Pasav’s pointed hat. He carried a longsword, sharp and expertly handled. I favored a shortspear myself, although a sword also hung clumsily at my belt. I was tall at fourteen, but far from brave.
Suddenly a shadow scraped against the stone just out of sight. My heart stopped, but Pasav’s voice was calm. “Show yourself. There is no safety for you in darkness, nor danger for you in the light, unless you bring it.”
I tightened my grip on the spear. Into the shadowy green light stepped a scaly gray creature. It walked a hunchbacked gait, supporting the weight of a pair of twisted wings that would not properly fold on its back. A bony ridge ran from its head down its spine and formed a short whip of a tail. When it spoke, its voice was like a rusty chain being dragged along the dungeon floor.
“You are a friend of the master?” It asked.
“I was,” replied Pasav. “I seek the crucible. Do you know where Kirien hid it?”
At the sound of its master’s name, the creature began to grovel on the floor, whimpering and muttering, “master is gone, master is dead.” I noticed for the first time the claws at the end of his fingers, and that two of the fingers from his left hand were half missing. The wings did not fold as they should because one was broken and had never been properly set.
“Do you know about the crucible?” my master repeated.
When the creature did not respond, Pasav appeared ready to move on. Then, to my surprise and shock I heard my own voice asking, “Do you have a name?”
The muttering stopped, and the creature raised his head. Briefly its eyes flashed green, and it answered, “Borlock, Keeper of the Laboratory Key.”
Pasav stopped in mid-stride, and then turned to face us both. I stammered, but couldn’t think of anything else to say. Pasav chuckled once again, and the glow atop his hat brightened, showering us all in a soft pool of light. “Well, Kyven, you started this conversation, you really ought to finish it.”
As infuriated as I was with my master for once more making me his joke, I lost track of my fear. “I am Kyven, and this is my master.” I almost said Pasav’s name, but something in the wizard’s eye told me not to go that far.
“Kyven,” Borlock repeated.
“We need the crucible to stop the Horde. Did your master keep it in the laboratory?”
Borlock looked suddenly both excited and unhappy. I could only guess how long he had been trapped here, and how long he had been since anyone spoke to him. “You have come to stop the Horde? You are a friend of my master?”
“Yes, I’ve come to stop the Horde,” I said, “although I never knew your master.” I looked the creature over, and after a moment said, “If you help us, you can come with us. Show us where the crucible is, and we will help you get out of the dungeon.”
Pasav’s chuckled turned almost into a laugh at my words, but weather because of my idiocy or some other reason, I couldn’t fathom. Borlock, however, seemed to become both more excited and yet more sad. “I cannot leave, I must yet serve my master while I live, but I can show you where the crucible waits.” Now Pasav placed his eyes firmly on Borlock, and the creature became suddenly fearful. “But it is guarded. Evil enemies broke the locks and hold the laboratory. The crucible they do not touch, for it is powerful and they fear it, but none else may touch it either.” He gestured to his broken wing and scars. “I have tried many times to get it back.”
Pasav seemed suddenly cheerful. “Not to worry Borlock,” he said, “just show us where it is and you’ll have your lab back. But first lets rest a bit and then we’ll be off.” The old wizard sat down next to the wall, and fished some food from his pack. Warily, I did the same. This would not be the first time I had witnessed Pasav lure an enemy into a state of security, and I could not sense if his motives were genuine. Borlock seemed impatient to be going, until Pasav invited him to share our meal. From the squeals of joy and delight, I can only guess that Borlock had not tasted real food since before I was born.
Within a few moments we were on our way again. Borlock seemed eager for us to rid the laboratory of its current occupants. I felt queasy at the idea of fighting whatever had already bested the nightmare leading us through the dungeon. In the time that had passed since we first entered this dungeon – I could only guess that it had been days – I had come to understand that not all darkness is evil, but I never imagined anything as hideous as Borlock could be so helpful. He knew his way without error, and lead us several times past danger. As we went, he taught me a great deal about how to use my spear, and the tactics to use when fighting beasts and men. We scoured the dungeon for another day, each moment delving deeper, and in that time I made a close if somewhat odd friendship.
“What sort of creatures hold the crucible,” Pasav asked as we descended what I hoped was the final set of stairs.
“Denizens of Morthol,” replied Borlock grimly. “They are but lesser servants, but the crucible gives them power I do not understand.
Pasav let out a loud “harrumph” and muttered something about “bungling with the powers of the seven hells.” I knew from past experience that Pasav was expressing his utter distaste at another’s “complete incompetence” despite having achieved impressive results. Morthol, I would have to assume, would not be a pleasant home, and its dwellers were likely not on speaking terms with surprise visitors. I had heard of demons from my mother, and didn’t doubt they existed, and although this seemed just the place for them, I couldn’t help being taken aback at Borlock’s reaction when we reached the bottom of the stairs. He stopped quite suddenly, and began quivering with obvious fear. From a tattered belt pouch he slipped a slender gold key, and held it out. Pasav took the key, and the creature said, “The leader is Galyra. They will sense my approach, if they haven’t already. If I come with you my terror will surely be the end of us all. Take the first corridor to the right and you will find the laboratory.”
For once, Pasav didn’t chuckle, although I did catch a smile breaking briefly across his face. Borlock seemed anxious to retreat back up the stairs. I knew my master would never let such a valuable resource go so easily. “Borlock, if they know that you are here, then we should just as well make use of it.” The creature’s fear intensified, and a look of confusion spread across his face. “Your terror has indeed boggled your wits,” said Pasav gently, “but my wits are still about me. How many of these lightbreakers are there?”
Borlock calmed visibly at Pasav’s words. “Galyra, and a half dozen others. I managed to slay several of them a long time ago, but they have destroyed my weapons and traps, so I can no longer fight them. They know better than to venture above these stairs, where I still have some surprises, but this entire area is under their complete control.”
Pasav looked thoughtful, and mused, “if things are as I believe they are, then we needn’t worry too much about the lightbreakers. Our primary concern is to activate the crucible. Once that happens, I believe you will find the keep a much nicer place.” Although he could see the questions on my face, my master continued without pause. “Kyven and I will wait in the darkness where the laboratory corridor begins. Borlock, you simply need to snoop around the laboratory. Go scout them out, but the moment you sense danger, get out. Run back up the stairs, and find a safe place to hide and wait. Kyven and I will handle the lightbreakers, and whatever else comes out to find you.” As he spoke, Pasav untied the sash around his robe, and then re-knotted it so that a good length hung out at the end, which he handed to me. “Don’t let go of this, my boy, or you will perhaps not find your way out of this darkness again.” The light suddenly winked out, and I grabbed tightly at the sash, wrapping it a couple of times around one hand, and clinging to my spear with the other. The darkness was absolute, and with it also came a silence deeper than sleep, so deep the breathing of my companions sounded as loud now as the cries of battle that had brought me to my master. I followed the tug of the sash, my eyes splayed wide in a vain search for anything to see.
After a few moments of slow walking, the sash went slack, and I heard the muffled whisper, “sit down.” I quickly and quietly did as told. My eyes attempted to penetrate the blackness, but the effort was fruitless. I heard Borlock shuffle away, but within seconds there was nothing but silence and darkness. The sound of my heart beating, and Pasav’s breathing.
Imperceptibly, a shadow approached, and only after several seconds did I realize that Borlock must have been returning. I recognized the sound of his movement, but only as he passed us by in the corridor. He left a familiar chain-rattle whisper, “two follow,” as he left, and I nervously repositioned my spear. In the distance, a faint light became visible, outlining the shapes of two demonic humanoids. Their heads were outlined with spiked horns, and their bodies covered in a thick leathery hide. A thick mane of black fur clung to their necks and arms, and each carried a large flame bathed broad sword.
I have often asked Pasav why he didn’t just blast the lightbreakers with fire, or put them under a spell or something, and all he ever says is “I always needed an extra scar.” Of course, to my mind, trying to leap up and attack a pair of beasts while a scared boy is clinging with all his strength to your sash is probably not a good idea. In any event, Pasav fell on his back, giving the tusked demons both our location and a tactical advantage. Some instinct inside of me tore my grip from the sash at that moment, and I quickly launched my spear at the nearest enemy. The sharpened blade pierced the demon breast, and as it did an unearthly heat or acid began to consume the shaft. The lightbreaker toppled and landed on top of my master. As Pasav struggled to free himself, the second was quickly upon me, attacking viciously with his sword. I defended the blows with all my might, but strength seemed to dissipate from my limbs with each parry. My own sword’s weight grew with each pass, and I knew I could not hold out for very long. I had never been in a position to run away from a battle before, and now that the opportunity presented itself, I realized for the first time that I was willing to fight and die for the old man who had given me a life. That thought gave renewed strength to my limbs, and I fought back just long enough for Pasav to gain his feet and finish the fight for me.
My master’s left arm and chest were torn where the demon’s horns had cut him, but perhaps the largest smile I had ever seen on his face beamed back at me through the dying iridescent glow from the lightbreakers’ bodies. He put his arm around my shoulder, and the little globe of light appeared over his head. “You fought both bravely and well,” he said, “now let’s finish this nasty business so we can find a comfortable place to eat and rest.”
His calm demeanor penetrated my mind, and I walked coolly towards the laboratory door. The door itself, though outwardly unremarkable, bore the unmistakable mark of magic that I had grown used to around Pasav. There was a keyhole just below the handle, which perfectly fit Borlock’s golden key. Pasav muttered some arcane words as he unlocked the door, and motioned me to step back. There was a quick flash of light from within the keyhole, but the door did not move until Pasav pushed the handle, and it swung open easily.
The scarred and burned bodies of three more demons writhed on the floor not far from the door, and a fourth was crawling desperately toward a corner on the far end of the room. The stench of burning flesh reached my nose, and I stifled my vomit by looking elsewhere. On a pedestal at the far end of the room, beyond a table, sat a large steel vessel. The power radiating from that portion of the room made it unmistakable that this was indeed our quarry. In front of the pedestal, however, stood one last obstacle, perhaps the most beautiful obstacle I would ever face, and certainly the fairest I had encountered then. At fourteen, a boy is likely to have known few girls, and even fewer women. Certainly he would never have met a creature perfectly formed in every way, or one who possessed such a sultry and magical voice. The dark hair and lips contrasted stunningly with the ivory skin, and only the smoking dagger in her hand betrayed her innocent appearance. She dressed in burnt leather, whose purpose was more to reveal than to conceal or provide comfort, and when she spoke her authority was unmistakable.
“Finally, someone has come to save me,” she said in perfect innocence.
True to form, Pasav chuckled to himself, but tears welled up in my eyes for pity. Trapped here among these demons, enduring terrors I could hardly imagine. I moved forward, to help her, but a firm hand restrained me.
“I had not expected to find you here, Galyra,” said Pasav, “although I imagine you have indeed found this more of a prison that you thought it would be.”
“You mock my suffering. Why? Set me free and I will help you. I can tell you many secrets of this place, but we must hurry.”
She sounded reasonable to me, and I didn’t understand why Pasav chose to ignore her pleas. “No time for that,” he said, and quickly he raised his hands. As he did, the glow about his head became a blinding light, and he shouted words of power. The steel vessel screamed in response, blasting out a shriek of grating metal. A fire consumed the pedestal, but the crucible continued unmoved, floating above the flame.
Galyra screamed in anger, and flung the dagger unerring towards my master’s throat. At the last instant, Pasav moved aside, and the weapon clattered to the floor. Galyra flung the table aside, and prepared to assault without weapons, when suddenly she was lifted as with an unseen rope and dragged towards the crucible. A blue light erupted from the vessel, surrounding the seductress and consuming her. The whimpering lightbreaker in the corner was likewise lifted and dragged into the crucible, and together their cries of anguish crushed against my ears. I covered my head in fear, but Pasav made me lift my eyes and witness the transformation. Everywhere that darkness had been was replaced with light and splendor. The dull gray stone floors of the laboratory in the proper light became polished marble. The otherworldly evils everywhere within the keep began to be consumed.
“Kyven, my boy,” I believe we made some progress today. As we turned to leave, we met Borlock. He looked just as hideous in the light of the crucible as he had before, if not more so. Yet now I could discern the wisdom in his eyes, and the kindness born of long suffering.
“You are the true masters of the keep now,” he said, “and I will serve you while I have life.” The wretched gargoyle then bent his scabby head and knelt. Pasav raised him gently, and smiled softly.
“You have a great deal of work to do here. Rally the loyal servants, and rebuild the keep befitting the wizards of old,” he said.
“What about us,” I asked.
“You and I have shall just have to wait until the next adventure to answer that question, and with any luck it will be a long time coming.” Something in the twinkle of my master’s eye told me that our adventures would come far more often than I would ever get used to.

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